Mother nature had complete disregard for the 7 p.m. kickoff time Friday night between the No. 1 Thunder Basin Bolts and the No. 3 Natrona County Mustangs. About 12 minutes before kickoff, the dark, ominous clouds produced the dreaded lighting and the game didn’t actually start until until after 7:45 p.m.
The lightning continued to strike East of the stadium for almost the entire first half, but the Bolts on the field were held in check. Natrona produced a stifling shutout through two quarters and jumped out to a 16-0 lead, but Thunder Basin is no stranger to that position.
The Bolts were down by 16 points in the second half during the comeback win against Cheyenne East, and once again this week, they pulled off the improbable win. Sparked by an Isaiah Halliburton touchdown return to start the third quarter and capped by a 25-yard scoring burst from Jaxon Pikula late in the fourth, TBHS rattled off 20 straight second-half points to steal the 20-16 victory.
“I don’t know why we keep doing this to ourselves,” TBHS coach Trent Pikula said amid his kneeling team after the game. “But it shows the type of character and heart that you guys have.”
The Bolts came out with “zero energy” to start the game, coach Pikula said. Just as the pregame adrenaline rush was taking effect, the team had to promptly return to the locker room and the Mustangs reacted better to take the 16-0 lead.
However, Pikula challenged his team at halftime and the difference in the sideline atmosphere was night and day to start the third quarter. Then the odds of winning increased dramatically thanks to the sophomore, Halliburton.
He caught the second-half kickoff near the 5-yard line, found a hole along the right hash and finally found open space ahead of him near the 50. Nobody could catch the explosive return man and that type of momentum-swinging play, this one to cut the deficit to 16-7, is exactly why Halliburton is out there.
“I’m just trying to go out there and make a big play, not for myself, but for my team,” Halliburton said. “I just wanted to come out in the second half and be completely different. Went out, made a play, and I think that really boosted the team up. … It actually means a lot to me.”
With the offense yet to score, the pressure was on Thunder Basin’s defense to keep the deficit right where it was. It answered the call just like it’s done all season, with Caleb Driskill and Dalton McInerney leading the charge.
The Bolts came up with two stops in a row, intermixed with another punt by their offense, before finally putting a drive together. A 9-yard catch on the goal line by Blaine Allen set up a crucial fourth and goal from the one, before Jaxon Pikula busted into the end zone for his first touchdown.
A missed extra point kept the Mustang lead at 16-13 with 2:02 left in the third quarter, but Thunder Basin now had every bit of momentum. It looked like the comeback was definitely in the works, but the Bolts didn’t pull ahead until there was just four minutes left in the game.
Nothing was coming easy, which was highlighted as Allen’s would-be touchdown catch was ruled out when his dive for the pylon dislodged the ball. That forced Hamilton to convert a fourth down pass to Warren Carr, before Jaxon Pikula busted through a huge hole for the game-winning 25-yard touchdown to make it 20-16.
The victory moves the Bolts to 6-0 on the season and gives them the sweep over the rest of what coach Pikula calls “the top four” – TBHS, Natrona, Sheridan and Cheyenne East. With wins over all three, the Bolts are in complete control of their playoff destiny and have the meat of their schedule behind them.
TBHS only had one turnover on the game, but it came on its third offensive play.
Mason Hamilton tried to float a ball over a defender on third down, but Natrona’s Dhillon Rehman picked it off at Thunder Basin’s 39-yard line. Seven plays later, NC quarterback Harrison Taubert’s tough five-yard touchdown run gave the Mustangs the 7-0 lead with 5:03 on the clock.
The issues continued for the TBHS offense for the remainder of the half, as Natrona was consistently bringing heavy pressure. Thunder Basin’s offensive line didn’t handle it well — Hamilton was under constant fire in the pocket and holding penalties also stopped the momentum multiple times.
One of those holds halted the Bolts’ second drive, and stuck in no man’s land near NC’s 40 and without it’s starting punter, they failed to convert on 4thand 25.
The Mustangs took advantage of the field position and capitalized again a couple minutes into the second quarter. Taubert capped another 39-yard drive with a perfect pass over Tanner Richards in defense and into the arms of Roman Overstreet in the corner of the end zone.
NC’s 14-0 lead grew to 16-0 a few minutes later after three and outs from both teams. Natrona’s punt pinned the Bolts on their own 2-yard line, and with how much pressure Hamilton had been under, that was a big cause for concern.
Sure enough, the Mustangs were celebrating a safety on the next play. Hamilton didn’t help his cause on the play, holding onto the ball for too long, and he was caught from behind for the safety.